The Kansas City Royals weren’t that bad in 2020. The AL Central wound up with three playoff teams and Kansas City’s alternate standings metrics told the tale of a team that was respectable with a 28-32 BaseRuns record and a similar record in 3rd Order Win%. It was a huge step in the right direction after losing more than 100 games for the second straight season in 2019. That was the first time the Royals had lost 100 games in consecutive seasons since 2004-06.
The Royals haven’t mastered consistent contention by any means. That flag at Kauffman Stadium will fly forever from the 2015 World Series and I’d sell my soul for one of those as an Indians fan. I’d endure a hell of a lot of bad baseball for just one season that culminated in the ultimate prize.
Maybe Royals fans would disagree. They certainly have a lot of data points to use as ammunition. Kansas City has lost 100 games six times since 2000 and has lost at least 90 games in six additional seasons. That is a lot of bad baseball.
This is a team that remains in transition. Second-year manager Mike Matheny did well in Year 1, all things considered. New owner John Sherman was one of the early big spenders in the free agent market, writing checks for Carlos Santana and a return of Mike Minor.
It is a Royals team that looks a lot different than it did a few years ago, when we were watching the downswing of Alex Gordon’s impressive career and the departures of Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer in free agency. The new core group is actually quite intriguing, headlined by Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi, Jorge Soler, and prospect Bobby Witt Jr., one of the game’s top middle infield prospects, who is waiting in the wings.
Truth be told, I like what the Royals are putting together. They’ve never been thought of as a team at the forefront of the analytics movement, but they clearly made gains at the margins on the pitching side and got some huge contributions from guys that made the leap from Double-A or Single-A in Brady Singer and Kris Bubic during the shortened season.
To me, the Royals did exactly what they should have done with the shortened season. They accelerated the timelines of some of their better pitching prospects to give them meaningful reps at the MLB level in a throwaway season. There were no worries about service time, as we often see from small and mid-market teams. They knew they weren’t going to be a playoff factor, so they made a plan and stuck to it.
I’ve mentioned a lot that I’m a big believer in aggression and a proactive approach over a reactive approach. I love that the Royals took chances in 2020 and took that 60-game sprint to position themselves for a contention window in the near future. I like that they were a decent team with down years from Soler and Merrifield. I like that they’ve quietly put together a solid bullpen.
Will it translate to wins in a traditional season that won’t include all Central Division teams? Will Sherman continue to show a commitment, both internally and externally, to spending money? Is this the surprise team of 2021?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Chicago White Sox||-143|
|Kansas City Royals||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-16 (4.35/4.62)||-173 (4.25/5.32)|
|3rd Order Win%||28.2-31.8||59.0-103.0|
|Record in One-Run Games||8-9||15-25|
Additions: Brad Brach, Hanser Alberto, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, Carlos Santana, Michael A. Taylor, Mike Minor, Andrew Benintendi
Losses: Maikel Franco, Glenn Sparkman, Kevin McCarthy, Mike Montgomery, Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Matt Harvey, Franchy Cordero, Khalil Lee
The Royals didn’t do much this winter, but the two notable moves they did make were very early in the process. There was no hesitation in reuniting with Mike Minor or in signing Carlos Santana. In some ways, it was the Royals and owner John Sherman that popped the top on the free agent frenzy.
Santana provides a high walk rate for a team that was 26th in BB% last season and 25th the season before. He’s familiar with AL Central pitching and a Gold Glove caliber first baseman. It was a good signing, even if batting average honks don’t think so.
I’m less excited about Mike Minor, but capable MLB arms are in short supply for this rotation. Minor did see a big strikeout increase last season and bad luck on the LOB% side, so maybe he is a good buy candidate. More on that later.
The Andrew Benintendi/Franchy Cordero swap took place in February and it is a deal I like for the Royals.
Getting the band back together with Wade Davis and Ervin Santana seems unnecessary, but neither guy got a guaranteed deal. I don’t see anything too concerning of the players that the Royals lost.
|Batting Average (BA)||.244 (16th)||.247 (19th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.309 (27th)||.309 (25th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.402 (19th)||.401 (27th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.308 (20th)||.302 (27th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||91 (21st)||84 (27th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.297 (13th)||.301 (11th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.0% (17th)||23.1% (14th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.8% (26th)||7.5% (25th)|
The Kansas City Royals are somewhat tough for me to analyze. I like a lot of the individual pieces and parts to this team, but I don’t know how it all comes together. Like I can sit here and bet my life on Salvador Perez not posting a .410 wOBA with a 162 wRC+ again this season. I can also sit here and say that I could see a path for Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi, and Jorge Soler to all be better and make up some of that slack.
Alex Gordon’s awful 184 plate appearances will go to somebody else and that somebody else probably won’t post a .275 wOBA and a 69 wRC+. It would nice to see Nicky Lopez’s awful 192 plate appearances with a .254 wOBA and a 55 wRC+ go to somebody else, too. He has a .258 wOBA and a 55 wRC+ over 594 plate appearances, but he has played pretty good defense at second base. Hanser Alberto could be that somebody.
This is the problem for the Royals, though. Their minor league system has not been great for a while now. Bobby Witt Jr. is coming, but he only has 180 plate appearances in Rookie ball and last year’s lost minor league season really hurts a player like him. The Royals simply don’t have good enough replacements knocking on the door at virtually any position. They would do well to scour the free agent markets for some non-roster invites or low-risk guaranteed deals to plug holes and acquire some prospects while they wait for another competitive window to emerge.
Somebody like Hanser Alberto makes a lot of sense and he’s a versatile player that could post league average offensive numbers, like what we saw back in 2019. The issue for the Royals is that their good players are not good enough offensively to overcome just how bad some of their offensive pieces are.
If Gordon and Lopez are replaced by full seasons of Andrew Benintendi and Hanser Alberto, that elevates the projection of this lineup. Add in improved stat lines from Merrifield, Mondesi, and Soler and we’re kind of cooking with something here.
It is important with win totals to understand that I am trying to gauge improvements in the aggregate. Maybe Benintendi and Alberto are not league average hitters, but they’re not going to be 31% and 45% below league average in all likelihood. Increased competence in the batter’s box can go a long way because numbers like what Gordon and Lopez put up are bottom of the barrel hot garbage.
Benintendi was a nice buy-low piece I think. He had seemingly fallen out of favor with the Red Sox for some reason and now goes to a low-stress environment where I think he’ll feel more comfortable. His 2018 outlier with a .357 wOBA and a 123 wRC+ probably isn’t coming back, but league average is not a big ask at all and a huge upgrade to Gordon.
Whit Merrifield (Go Cocks!) posted a 106 wRC+ last season. His BABIP fell from .350 to .295 and it shaved 20 points off of his batting average, 23 points off of his OBP, and 23 points off of his SLG. Merrifield’s average exit velocity was a full mile per hour lower in 2020 than it was in 2019. In case you think I belabor the point with exit velocity and contract metrics, this is why. You can usually see tangible differences with each mile per hour drop in contact quality. Merrifield fell victim to that last season.
It is a bad sign when your K% goes from 17.1% to 12.5% and your batting average goes down anyway. Merrifield is getting older and he’s a bat-to-ball guy that likes to be active on the bases. His offensive profile is subject to the aging curve a lot more than other players. That being said, Merrifield just turned 32 in January.
I can’t help but wonder if Whit played through something inn the second half. He had a .365 wOBA and a 131 wRC+ before finishing with a .299 wOBA and an 85 wRC+ over his last 139 plate appearances. He’s a bounce back candidate.
Jorge Soler didn’t replicate his 48-homer season with a .378 wOBA and a 136 wRC+ from 2019, but his contact quality remained high. He just didn’t make enough of it with an 8.3% K% increase. Like Merrifield, I think he’ll return to form. That feels like an outlier to me, especially with elite contact quality metrics when he did hit the ball.
Mix in Mondesi, who had a .233 wOBA and a 40 wRC+ to start the season in 103 PA and then a .362 wOBA and a 129 wRC+ in 130 PA and I think we have a player that should also improve.
Santana’s consistent presence and ability to walk help a guy like Hunter Dozier really lengthen the lineup at the bottom. Dozier, too, saw a drop in some of his numbers, particularly in the power production department.
I’m buying some stock in this offense. I think this is a pretty decent group that could very well finish around league average or better. I expect fewer strikeouts, more balls in play, and more traffic on the bases. The Royals were 21st in plate appearances with RISP and only batted .243 (24th) with the 26th-ranked wOBA at .309. I’d expect more chances and more success in that role.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.30 (12th)||5.20 (27th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.50 (18th)||4.90 (26th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.47 (15th)||4.98 (28th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.2% (18th)||19.5% (30th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.4% (16th)||9.2% (26th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||73.9% (12th)||70.2% (24th)|
The Royals made some very significant strides on the pitching side from 2019 to 2020. They did benefit from facing a bad Tigers offense, a bottom-five Indians offense, and a Twins offense that regressed in a big way, so maybe we have to sprinkle some grains of salt on these numbers. What stands out to me about the Royals is that they didn’t get a bunch of empty innings in 2020. They smartly and aggressively got 22 combined starts in a 60-game season from Brady Singer and Kris Bubic.
Compare that to 2019 with 23 wasted starts from Glenn Sparkman and 18 starts from Homer Bailey. Meaningful innings for pitching prospects in the organization are worth their weight in gold and especially during what was effectively a lost season. Singer had never pitched above Double-A, but more than held his own with a 4.06 ERA and a 4.08 FIP over his 64.1 innings. Bubic had never pitched above High-A, but had a 4.32 ERA with a 4.75 FIP in 50 innings.
The Royals still used 11 starting pitchers in the 60-game season, but 42 of their 60 games were started by Singer, Bubic, Brad Keller, and Danny Duffy. Duffy wasn’t anything special with a 4.95 ERA and a 4.75 FIP, but at least he stayed healthy and had some positive signs to go along with a home run issue that cannot be ignored.
Keller continued to be effective in spite of a low strikeout rate. He’s an extreme ground ball guy, which plays well in the launch angle era and plays extremely well with a Royals team that is quite good defensively on the infield. The addition of Carlos Santana enhances what this infield defense can do, so I’d expect Keller to have another strong season.
This is a change for me. I typically look down on pitchers that have low strikeout rates, but in this era of baseball when stringing hits together is more challenging than ever, a guy like Keller actually becomes more of an undervalued player in my estimation. Sure, I’d like to see more strikeouts, but fastball command as good as Keller’s is in short supply these days.
Singer and Bubic are above average to well above average in the ground ball department. Mike Minor is more of a fly ball pitcher and outfield defense was an area of concern for the Royals. Merrifield is an average or slightly better outfielder. Benintendi should be around average defensively. Michael A. Taylor can’t hit to save his life, but he was worth 25 defensive runs saved in 2017-18 when he was playing regularly. He’s still only 29.
While I’m not bullish on Minor overall, I am bullish on the Royals defense. That will elevate a pitching staff that will finish in the bottom half of the league in K%, at least on the starting pitcher side.
The Royals retooled their bullpen last season and finished sixth in K% at 26.3%. They, like so many other bullpens, had problems with walks, but we saw reliever walks increase at an unsustainable level last season. My guess is that the weird lead-up to the season and the condensed schedule gave more relievers control problems than an average season. The reliever BB% was the highest it had been since 2009 and was over 10% for only the eighth time since the shortened strike year of 1994. Reliever K% was, of course, the highest ever.
It was great to see Kyle Zimmer, a pitcher that has been through so much on his way to The Show, excel in a relief capacity. Even Greg Holland turned back the clock to post a 1.91 ERA with a 2.52 FIP. Josh Staumont missed a ton of bats. Scott Barlow was better than his ERA would suggest with a 4.20 ERA, but a 3.42 FIP and a 3.30 xFIP. We’ll see if the Royals can work some magic with Wade Davis back in the fold, but even if not, I really like the top part of this bullpen.
Positives & Negatives
The Royals are a little depth-shy and that concerns me. Depth is a big factor for me with season win total wagers because 162 games are a lot. Furthermore, with Singer and Bubic, two pitchers that the Royals will want to protect as much as possible, we could see innings caps coming off of the shortened season. That will be a factor with all young pitchers, but could be especially relevant for the Royals because those are two high-upside guys in a rotation that otherwise has a pretty capped ceiling.
Top pitching prospect Daniel Lynch is probably not as advanced as Singer or Bubic were, but then again, the Royals accelerated the development curve for those guys. The Royals just don’t have a lot of reliable starting pitching depth. The Major League bench isn’t filled out. This is a team operating on thin margins on the health front.
I wasn’t overly keen on the hire of Mike Matheny, but he seemed to do well in his first season. The Royals were actually a 28-32 team by both BaseRuns and 3rd Order Win% while playing in a division that had three playoff teams. That is an impressive showing.
Kansas City Royals Pick & Prediction: Over 72.5
This will actually be a bet for me. I’m pretty surprised, to be totally honest with you, that I like the Royals as much as I do. I do think they’ll be a forgotten team in this division with what the White Sox and Twins are doing and with Cleveland’s elite pitching staff. I’d anticipate that this number could dip even lower simply based on the fact that you have three playoff teams from last season that don’t appear to be ready to take any major steps back.
I like finding what I perceive to be hidden value and I think Kansas City’s defensive prowess is exactly that. They have a rotation that doesn’t really stand out on paper, but they pair well with the defense. Hunter Dozier isn’t great at third, but he could improve. Adalberto Mondesi regressed a little defensively last season, but he should rebound. Carlos Santana is a phenomenal defensive addition at first and his BB% skills make him a doubly good fit.
This lineup is better than people realize. Salvador Perez will never repeat what he did in 2020, but the Royals have some pretty aggressive hitters and I’m becoming a “swing early in the count” guy. With Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler due for stronger seasons, plus a bounce back from Dozier and perhaps a continuation of Mondesi’s second half of 2020, this lineup can score in a lot of different ways and put a lot of pressure on the opposition.
Ultimately, the biggest factor for me is that I really like the Royals bullpen. When taking a risk by playing a season win total for a bad team, you absolutely have to have confidence that they will win the games that they are supposed to. You can ill-afford to have those teams blowing games late because they won’t have as many chances at leads as other teams. The Royals were 15-3 with a lead after five innings and 16-0 with a lead after six innings. They shut it down. I’d expect more of the same.
This one will be a bet for me and it seems I’m not alone, as this one is either juiced to the over or has gone up. Royals over 72.5 is actually one of my stronger positions overall heading into the season and will be a bet.
When it comes to overs, unless I expect the line to move significantly, I will typically wait until later in Spring Training to make sure that things are still kosher with that team. The last thing I’d want to do is lock in an over and then Soler or Merrifield get hurt or one of the better starting pitchers goes down.
Unlike the Rays, who have depth all over the place and have already been an over bet for me, the Royals are depth-shy, so I’ll err on the side of caution and bet this one later in March.